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State hits record 1.18 million registered voters

As Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton continue to battle for every last Democratic convention delegate, the resulting interest in West Virginia's May 13 primary has helped push the state's voter rolls to a record-high 1.18 million.

But while Democrats remain the majority party in the Mountain State, their decision to open their primary to unaffiliated voters also appears a factor behind the increase.

These voters account for nearly half of the growth seen since the last statewide election, in 2006. And while both Democrats and Republicans have actually seen drops in their ranks since 2004, when total registration hit a 52-year high, new unaffiliated voters more than offset their declines.

Changes in voter registration since January, meanwhile, suggest that the Democrats should expect more than a few once-and-future Republicans to cast ballots in their primary. Besides a chance to meddle in the other party's presidential contest, GOP switchovers would encounter far more choices for statewide, legislative and even local offices.

"On the Republican ballot, there's not a whole lot of races on there,'' noted Kanawha County Clerk Vera McCormick.

Official figures from the secretary of state's office show that of the West Virginians registered by last week's deadline for voting in the primary, 665,234 are Democrats and 347,760 are Republicans. Another 156,199 are unaffiliated, 931 belong to the Mountain Party and 13,371 are with some other alternative party.

The 1.18 million tally exceeds by about 9,100 voters the previous high of 1.17 million seen in 1952, during a decade when the state's overall population peaked above 2 million. In 2004, with interest heightened by the Bush-Kerry race, registration hit 1.168 million.

A dozen of the larger counties account for nearly 60 percent of the 46,124 voters added since 2006. They include Cabell and Monongalia, where officials cite registration drives focused on college students and other young people. Several of these counties attribute some of their new voters to efforts by Obama supporters.

"The Obama campaign, I understand, was very active'' before the April 22 registration deadline, state Democratic Party Chairman Nick Casey said. He added that he suspects the Clinton camp was similarly engaged.

The dueling presidential campaigns have also spurred the turnout of early voting, which began Wednesday. Officials in Berkeley, Cabell, Jefferson, Kanawha and Monongalia counties together fielded nearly 2,000 early ballots by mid-Friday. McCormick said a sizable contingent of Obama volunteers arrived to vote early on Thursday.

"It picks up a little bit every day,'' she said. "It seems that the last week of early voting, that's when it's the busiest. It seems to get more popular every year.''

The Obama campaign added offices in Clarksburg, Huntington, Martinsburg and Parkersburg over the weekend to an in-state presence that already included locales in Beckley, Charleston, Morgantown, and Wheeling. Clinton has opened an office in Charleston, with more planned as it steps up get-out-the-vote efforts, a campaign spokeswoman said.

"We have a strong network of volunteers across the state who are making calls, knocking on doors, and arranging rides to early voting locations,'' Jessica Santillo, Clinton's West Virginia communications director, told The Associated Press.

McCormick also noted that her county, the state's most populous, has actually lost 45 GOP voters since January, while gaining 1,626 Democrats, 1,044 unaffiliated voters and three Mountain Party members.

Twenty-nine other counties have seen Republican declines since the beginning of the year, in contrast to a trend that has seen the GOP outgain Democrats in between elections for much of the decade.

Early voting figures from Berkeley, Jefferson and Kanawha counties show that two thirds of the ballots cast have been in the Democratic primary. Berkeley is among nine West Virginia counties where Republicans outnumber Democrats.

McCormick, a Republican, believes fellow party members have defected temporarily to vote in the Democratic primary. Unlike the GOP ballot, the majority party's features contested races for governor, Supreme Court, secretary of state and U.S. Senate. The 2nd U.S. House District, which includes Kanawha County, also has multiple Democratic candidates. So do 29 of the state's 58 House of Delegates districts and eight of the 17 state Senate seats up this year.

The GOP has just eight primary contests for state House seats; it had one contested Senate race, but health issues have sidelined Jefferson County Commissioner Rusty Morgan in that district.

Rush Limbaugh, among others, has been urging Republicans in other states to switch over and vote in Democratic primaries in a bid to prolong the Obama-Clinton fight. Casey discounts that as a factor in West Virginia.

"Rush Limbaugh represents the radical, almost stupid end of the Republican Party, or at least of people who think like that,'' Casey said. "Most Republicans I know, they're not crazy like that.''

Casey instead cited the dearth of choices on the Republican primary ballot, which is also available to unaffiliated voters. He predicted the next secretary of state would be decided by the Democratic primary. He also noted interest in that primary's contentious four-candidate race for two Supreme Court seats.

"They're not doing that to try to be cute. They're doing that to be responsible people,'' Casey said of the switchovers. "The goofballs will, but not the solid people.''

Early voting ends May 10.

 


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